A Historical Understanding of Assam’s Floods

It must recognize that the Assam floods were always going to happen because they were predetermined. The flood must be acknowledged as a “national tragedy” so that the Indian government may own its “failure” to comprehend the rhythm of the river. The requirement for the government to take responsibility for such failures shows that we can only create new possibilities by failing.

Flooding in Assam is merely a repeat of the same calamity; it is not a brand-new or exceptional occurrence. Watershed events in the history of once-undivided Assam that caused havoc in the area included devastating floods and earthquakes. Despite the fact that Assam has endured numerous devastating floods throughout its history, the phenomenon of catastrophic floods only started to become more common after the 1950s earthquake. As a result, devastating floods occurred in 1954, 1962, 1972, 1977, 1984, 1988, 2002, 2004, 2012, and most recently in 2019 and 2020. In 32 of Assam’s 35 districts this year (2022), the flood has impacted almost 5.5 million people. The death toll increased to 190 (the number of unreported deaths would be more than that) and also caused massive erosion and displacement while destroying houses, roads, railways and bridges to become one such devastating flood of Assam.

According to Arupjyoti Saikia (2019), Assam was referred to in ancient literature as a “waterscape” in his acclaimed book The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra. The Brahmaputra’s tributaries are so numerous, according to the author, that Assam is claimed to have more rivers than any other region with a comparable size in the globe. By the late 20th century, the annual floods had frequently swamped 40% of the valley’s total land area. Without a doubt, more than 40% of the land areas are vulnerable to frequent flooding due to the accelerating rate of global warming and climate change.

What Happens When Floods Occur?

In his book, Saikia (2019), gives a thorough account of the flood scenario. Thousands of people across the valleys are quickly displaced by floods and become homeless, especially those who live in low-lying (chaparis) areas. Floods result in considerable losses to agriculture, domestic animals, livestock, and granaries owned by farmers. They would have to eat fruits or plantains to get by for several weeks. When homes become submerged, residents relocate to higher ground and stay in temporary shelters. Some individuals wait for the flood to pass on their homes’ roofs, in boats, or on makeshift rafts. Only the roofs of the homes that are above floodwater can distinguish between the huge settlements. The floodplain is filled with the waters of the overflowing wild river. The river significantly contributes to erosion and land formation with its sand, waters, and extensive network of tributaries. During floods, large areas of land are frequently eroded and then rebuilt elsewhere by floodwater, particularly along the Brahmaputra River. Thousands of people periodically relocated to different locations in search of land for habitation and agriculture since their lands were being eaten by the river. Following a flood, there is a greater likelihood that epidemics including water-borne illnesses and skin infections would spread.

It is crucial to remember that while land (places) are quickly submerged by water during floods, many low-lying areas continue to be under water for several months. Floodwater would not recede for more than a month until the flooded areas dried out. In addition, “receding flood waters held back to form beels (floodplain lakes) in numerous low-lying locations” (Saikia 2019). Also, after several months of flooding in the valley, residents are able to resume their normal lives.

Causes of Many Waves of Floods

We must examine Assam’s past flood records in order to delve into the reasons behind the state’s frequent waves of flooding. In his paper “Aftermath of the Great Assam Earthquake of 1950,” British botanist Francis Kingdon-Ward (1955) offered the most persuasive justification for the causes of the Assam floods. Kingdon-Ward was a frequent traveller in the eastern Himalayas known as a “plant hunter,” and on the day of the 1950s earthquake, he was very near Rima, the epicentre.

Kingdon-Ward (1995) claims that “The Brahmaputra has experienced floods before. Floods must have always existed because before 1950, they occurred on average every ten years. Since the earthquake, significant flooding has become a yearly occurrence, reaching its peak with the devastating flood of 1954.” His prediction came true in large part because Assam has been plagued by terrible floods every year since the 1950s. Hardly a year has gone by when the state wasn’t affected by flooding.

Kingdon-Ward names three main sources for the vast amounts of water that the rivers in the north-eastern frontier region receive: annual snowfall, permanent glaciers, and rainfall. According to him, the quantity of water obtained from these sources varies depending on the season and the weather. According to Kingdon-Ward, a number of issues that result in significant floods in the area need to be treated very seriously. The repercussions might be severe, he continues, “If a hot spring and summer follow a big winter snowfall, it will reach a maximum; and if this maximum snow-melt coincides with maximum rainfall, the consequences could be disastrous.” Kingdon-Ward warned that if all of these unfavourable circumstances materialised in a single year, the results might be disastrous. Also, he provided information on the timing and reasons of the annual peak surges in water levels and floods, noting that “the second rise, about July, is due to a combination of snow-melt, increased glacier-melt, and rainfall, -and is, of course, considerably larger than the first.”

It appears that Kingdon-plausible Ward’s hypothesis applies to the flood of 2022. Although I am unable to demonstrate his assertion practically, thorough examination reveals a similar unfavourable weather trend. Winter of 2021 saw snowfalls,[ii] thunderstorms, and hailstorms[iii], followed by spring (the month of March 2022 was reported as the hottest in 122 years in India),[iv] which coincided with extended severe excessive pre-monsoon[v] and monsoon rains in summer in several parts of the North East region.

Although it occurred in April, the initial wave of the flood (which was extensively reported in mid-May 2022) caused significant damage in the Assamese districts of Dima Hasao (Haflong), Cachar, Dhemaji, Hojai, Karbi Anglong (west), Nagaon, and Kamrup. It seriously harmed irrigation canals, roads, bridges, railroad tracks, and stations. Massive downpours created landslides that turned a lengthy section of railroad track into a hanging bridge and covered the entire Haflong railway station with mudslides. At the same time, numerous news outlets have reported on train coaches that are submerged in muck.

Immediately following the initial wave of catastrophic flooding, the intense monsoon rain in June (which, according to Kingdon-Ward, coincided with the summertime melting of glaciers in the eastern Himalayas) supplied excess water that caused rivers to swell, turning the entire state into an inland Sea. The second-largest city in the state, Silchar, submerged under water on June 20. [vi] The area remained flooded for several weeks. The Assam state’s capital, Guwahati, has experienced repeated floods as a result of the severe rain in May[vii] and June. [viii] Millions of people in more than 10 districts are still impacted by the floods in Assam[ix] as of July. Until now, the destruction of 30,000–40,000 homes[x] as a result of the floods in Assam, as announced by the state’s chief minister.

Combating the Floods

Although the Kingdon-recommendations Ward’s for fighting floods are mostly aimed towards upper Assam, I think they would offer a workable guide for the whole state. Kingdon-Ward noted that “it is impossible to deal with the roots of the floods” and offered both mechanical and biological solutions to control flooding on the plains. With a river of the Dihang’s size, not much can be done. He claims that due of its immense magnitude, Dihang, the major river of the trio (including Dihang, Dibang, and Lohit) that formed the Brahmaputra, could not be controlled. Nonetheless, he recommended that all man-made barriers (made of sand) that might result in significant flooding and river diversion be flushed out on the plains. In order to deepen them and stop the water from losing force across the floodplains, the main channels should be kept open as frequently as possible. The river’s ability to maintain an open channel and prevent the construction of sand barriers on the plain, he claimed, is the main weapon in this situation. He adds that to tear down such barriers on the Tibetan side, there would need to be international collaboration.

Reforestation was Kingdon-biological Ward’s approach since he was convinced that every plant, even a fern or moss, contributes in some way to reducing erosion and, consequently, floods. His recommendation was, “If training walls, ramps, or dams were constructed, efforts should be taken to develop vegetation on top of them. Sowing should begin well clear of high-water mark and move gradually into the river channel. The greatest strategy would be to plant seeds for trees with rapid growth on the side that is more sheltered and shrubs, particularly those that grow socially, along the river.”

Kingdon-mechanical Ward’s propositions such as ‘dredging work near the confluence of the Lohit and Dihang in the cold weather, ‘dumping sands’ on the left bank, ‘building of defences’ at chosen spots on the left bank, ‘constructing walls by placing rounded boulders in strong steel mess’ and so on would involve ‘machinery on a big scale, ample labour, and excellent organisation’. In addition to this physical infrastructure, he asserted that understanding the river’s hydro-morphology, including its “annual rhythm, their rise and fall over the year,” was essential. Also, he insisted that a fresh approach must be used to the Dibang River.

Is Mega Dam a Solution to the Flood of Assam?

In order to generate power and reduce floods, the Bharatiya Janata Party administration at the centre of India has revealed its plans to construct the country’s second-largest dam on the Brahmaputra River at Yingkiong in Arunachal Pradesh[xi].

It should be noted that numerous worldwide specialists, including Bellport and well-known river giants Stuff and Weller, were highly dubious about building dams on the Brahmaputra. When the US Bureau of Reclamation’s BP Bellport visited Assam in 1965, he issued a warning that building large dams was not necessary if power generating was the main objective. Also, he stated that “earthquakes and the significant river siltation charge could be obstacles in the construction of multipurpose dams here” (Saikia, 2019).

Following Bellport, a second US technical team under the direction of Harvill E. Weller performed a thorough investigation of the Brahmaputra in 1966. The Brahmaputra should be controlled in a way that achieves “total stabilisation,” according to Weller. In his book, Arupjyoti Saikia cited the advice of Weller:

“Complete stability is the preferred strategy for Brahmaputra River management. To do this, there would need to be enough reservoirs on the rivers to restrict the inflow of silt and stop the river’s aggravation trend. By utilising all of the techniques or “tools” used in channel stabilisation, the river would then be constrained to a single channel that was trained into a sequence of simple bends, preferably along the current main channel of the river. The secondary channels would be blocked off, and the river would be trained to follow the chosen course using spurs, various accretion-inducing techniques, and dredging.

Disavowal of the Government towards Assam’s Floods

If floods are an annual occurrence, one may wonder why the government has not yet implemented appropriate mitigation and preparedness measures to prevent incalculable loss. The solution can be found in an original argument (found in Jack Black’s essay “A hole that does not speak: Covid, Catastrophe, and the Impossible”). Although being well aware of the disastrous effects of floods, the administration did not take them seriously, according to [xii]. They resisted taking action and making a sincere effort to prepare. This act of rejection suggests a failure to see the basic incoherence of both our social and political structures and of nature.


A coordinated response to the flood tragedy is now required. It is difficult to disagree with Saikia (2019) when he wrote in his book that “the idea of a regulated Brahmaputra is merely a chimaera.” But it must be understood that the goal is to live in harmony with the river’s rhythm, not to tame it. The Mishing tribes of Assam are a good example of a resilient culture since they built their homes on machans, or raised bamboo platforms, to protect themselves from the yearly floods.

One must acknowledge that the Assam flood was predestined and has always occurred in this situation. The flood must be acknowledged as a “national tragedy” so that the Indian government may own its “failure” to comprehend the rhythm of the river. The requirement for the government to take responsibility for such failures shows that we can only create new possibilities by failing.